Belfast Telegraph

Foley's killing awakens us all to perils of bad religion

By Alf McCreary

The grisly butchering of American journalist James Foley by Islamic fundamentalists has had a profound effect on Western opinion, and not least in America.

It is something which has also made me think very deeply about the whole nature of the search for truth and about my fellow- journalists who have lost their lives in carrying out this role.

One of the most profound questions in the New Testament is that of Pontius Pilate who asked Jesus, during his mock trial: "What is truth?"

What is truth indeed..?

During my years of reporting for this newspaper at the height of the Troubles, people would often say to me – even on social occasions: "You people never tell the truth."

My reply to this was always: " You tell me your truth, and I'll tell you mine."

That usually was enough to make my critics realise that the majority on both sides believed that only they had the truth.

The same applies, and still applies, to the Churches.

Most people from every denomination, sect or sub-group believe at heart that their version of religion is right.

Sometimes they ask me what I think, and I reply: "It's probably easier for someone who believes that God is male, Protestant and white, whereas others believe that she may be black and Muslim."

Those who understand my reply realise that I am trying to depict, tongue-in-cheek, the diversity and complexity of religious belief. However, those who do not understand, or who don't know any better, hurl ill-mannered abuse at me. The worst of these are the unsigned letters which quickly reach my refuse bin.

This is all part of the territory for a Northern Ireland journalist specialising in religion , but the extremely serious developments in the Middle East have underlined that bad religion is at the very heart of disputes which could place the world in the utmost peril. I believe that the horrible murder of James Foley has awakened the increasingly secular West to the huge problems we all face because of the intensity and violent potential of fundamentalist religious belief.

Foley was beheaded simply because he was a symbol of Western liberal culture and particularly because he was an American. He was conveniently butchered by the IS killers who wanted to make a political point. It was literally an attack on America and its Christian beliefs.

It mattered not that he was a good young man who was trying to tell the world what was really happening within the conflicts in the Arab world. His idea of free speech, or even of the Geneva Convention's concept of decent behaviour to prisoners, did not matter one jot.

Cynics may say: "So what?" However, I believe that the life and death of James Foley symbolises the importance of one of the most precious assets of our modern democratic society – that of free speech.

Of course there are bad journalists, and there is some dodgy journalism, but from my long experience the vast majority of good journalists are those who are committed to the highest standards of a free society.

That is why James Foley's unjust killing is so important to all of us. Once you attack free speech you attack the bedrock of our civilisation.

Pontius Pilate was right to ask "What is truth", but without people like James Foley and so many others in all ages, the truth will remain buried amid the debris of the bombs and the bullets.

That is why we should long remember and respect this young man who lived so bravely and who died with such courage and dignity.

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